26 December 2009

SATYAJIT RAY, FILMMAKER (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1982, India) - In Search of Ray

Satyajit Ray - Indian cinema's most accomplished filmmaker.

My research into the work of Satyajit Ray has led me to conclude that both Chidananda Das Gupta’s study of Ray’s films titled ‘The Cinema of Satyajit Ray (1994)’ and Shyam Benegal’s documentary, ‘Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker (1982)’ are both exhaustive, well judged and absolutely essential explorations of Ray’s origins and evolution as a filmmaker. Benegal’s 1982 documentary was shot by his regular cinematographer Govind Nihalani and we see Ray at work (this was the period when he was recovering from his first heart attack) on the set of ‘Ghaire-Baire’ (1984) (adapted from a novel by Rabindranath Tagore) and also directing Om Puri and Smita Patil in the post production phase of ‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance), a short television film (funded by Doordarshan, a key supporter of parallel cinema in the eighties) he directed in 1981. Benegal’s documentary begins with what is a largely observational mode and gradually leads to an extended interview with Ray – much of what he says is juxtaposed to a series of fascinating clips from what is an exceptionally broad oeuvre. Chidananda Das Gupta is also a filmmaker but more importantly he was a long time friend of Ray and together they established the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. I have read a number of books now on Ray but Das Gupta’s intelligent study is both very personal and grounded in an ideological discussion of his films, an element that continues to be absent from western academic texts.

1. The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta, 1994, Published by National Book Trust, India.

2. Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker - dir. Shyam Benegal, 1982; documentary

(this is available to watch on YouTube but apart from the interview which is conducted in English, the clips do not feature subtitles)


  1. You mean you never read the seminal book on Ray by Marie Seton (Portrait of a Director)? Treat this book as The Bible before you do any work on Ray.

    endu/new delhi

  2. I have ordered Marie Seton's book. Waiting for it to arrive but looking forward to it. I will have to see how it compares to Das Gupta's intellectual critique.

  3. Hi Omar

    I'm reading the Marie Seton book at the moment. It does have many interesting passages – including quite a bit on the making of Kanchenjunga. But, as you've guessed, it is not a book of film criticism or theory. She was working on a British Film Institute commission when she first went to India in the mid 1950s and she displays many of the British film establishment assumptions about Indian Cinema.

    Now you've alerted me to the whole of Kanchenjunga on YouTube, I must try to watch it. I've been searching but only found a VCD so far – the YouTube footage looks very good if it comes from a VCD.

    One query that popped into my head on viewing the first clip was whether Ray ever saw any of Ozu's later colour films. The look of the film – and the plot outline – are very Ozu-like, even if the style is very different.

    Re the Andrew Robinson quote, I thought I had seen the film in London in the early 1970s. I'm probably mistaken, but I must see if I can find my old NFT programmes.

    I'm really looking forward to your book!

  4. Thanks Roy. I will get round to reading Seton's book. I think this parallel in terms of the use of colour between Ozu and Ray is very interesting - maybe Ray did watch watch Ozu but in which year did Ozu start using colour? Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) has also been uploaded on YouTube including subtitles.

  5. Ozu's first colour film was Equinox Flower in 1958 and all his last five films (1958-61) were colour or included colour sequences. I'm not sure if any of them were shown in India, but Ray might have seen one at a festival?

    Kanchenjungha was shown at the NFT in June 1974 as part of a Ray retrospective. I was quite surprised to see that John Gillett in his intro to the season wrote: "Though Ray is irrevocably committed to his own traditions he is, like Ozu in a different context, entirely international in the strength of his feelings and power to make a foreign audience ally themselves with his characters." I hadn't realised that Ozu's profile was so prominent in the UK at that time.

  6. Holy cow. This is amazing. Thank you, though I'm not sure when I plan to watch these.

  7. I think of the best way to understand the supreme creative skills and observation power of Ray is to read books written by Ray himself where he openly discusses his ideas and thoughts on cinema, made by him and by others and perhaps, you get to know the genius more closely. Recommended books, one of which I consider as a great discourse on cinema, are "Our Films, Their Films" and Bishoy Chalachchitra. Bishoy Chalachchitra has been translated to "Speaking of Films". My personal favorite is "Our Films, Their Films" no doubt. Infact, “Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye” by Andrew Robinson is a great book too, but then the difference between Robinson's book and Chidananda Dasgupta's is their individual outlook - one is of a westerner and another an Indian. Infact, I also enjoyed reading Ritwik Ghatak's admiration of Ray and his cinema in Ghatak's writings on cinema in English, "Cinema and I", or "Rows and Rows of Fences"

    I strongly feel that Ray is a sublime mixture of Ozu and Vittorio De Sica, although I know Jean Renoir is the one who influenced him first. Both Ozu and Ray had this unique skill of lifting an apparently ordinary story to a level of an extraordinary art form. Tokyo Story and Apu Trilogy/Mahangar from Ozu and Ray respectively, are apt examples of this skill. Both directors, including De Sica, had managed to attract both their local masses and intellectual movie-goers. Both Ozu and Ray's camerawork took an unhurried, slow pace, in order to bring an optimal balance between their character and the milieu. What I like most, to be very specific, about Ray’s camera is the close-shot of his character’s face, showing their physic and emotional aspect, as if the eyes and face are speaking – no needs of words. A good example of this talent can be seen in Aparajito, Paras Pather and Kapurush.

    And of course, Ozu, De Sica and Ray were great modern social realist film-makers of their time.